Film Review: Pompeii

Word of mouth, like molten lava, will bury this mindless disaster.

It's a shame the title Gladiator was already taken, for that would have been a more accurate monicker for the profoundly empty Pompeii. Sure, the film is set in that tragically storied city at the base of the spewing volcano, which is its ultimate raison d'être in the first place, but any audience expecting to be filled in, even cursorily, on the history or ancient culture of the place will be sorely disappointed. Not even a minimal intellectual regard for what the filmmakers have callously deemed a brain-dead and bloodthirsty international audience has been granted; the resulting movie is little more than a violent killing machine.

The wisp of a plot concerns Milo (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”), an ace gladiator/slave whose Celtic family was massacred when he was a child by the malevolent Roman officer Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his henchman Proculus (Sasha Roiz). He comes to Pompeii to provide entertainment in the arena, and encounters the highborn Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). Their eyes burn with instantaneous passion for each other, but Milo has some serious professional slaughter to accomplish first for the delectation of Corvus and Proculus, who have coincidentally turned up in old Pompeii (with Corvus also making goo-goo eyes at the delicate Cassia). Passions and the need for revenge seethe, gladiators by the dozens meet their gory fates, our young lovers are sorely tried and, oh yes, that damn hill blows its top.

About the best that can be said for Pompeii is that its anticipated climax doesn't resemble a fifth-grade science project, for the CGI effects here are indeed impressive, with a lavish care and attention to detail wholly missing from the script. Along with all that impressively exploding lava, sometimes resembling the ultimate July 4th celebration, a massive tidal wave is also thrown in for good measure, momentarily cooling off the hundreds of luckless extras before they're turned into charcoal. And it's sadly typical that although there's been pretty much nothing else but horrific man-to-man combat preceding all this, the fighting only continues, as Milo, Corvus and Proculus just keep hacking away at one another.

Milo has some definite back-up in the monumentally muscular form of a fellow arena champion, a black slave (Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje) who is given the name Atticus (so evocative of To Kill a Mockingbird's righteous civil rights-supporting hero), who, yes, goes on and on about freedom. Rant as he may, it is all too apparent from his very first scene that he, like Cassia's lovely servant girl Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), has only been positioned here to inevitably die nobly for the upright and very white leading characters. (It's more than a bit noxious, this enduring and hoary Uncle Tom Hollywood tradition, and Akkinnuoye-Agbaje is given some real groaners to utter.)

With his ridiculously gelled hair—where did one find all that product in ancient times?—Harington comes off as a prettier, even more lightweight Orlando Bloom, while Browning merely inflates and deflates her nostrils to express emotion. A flatly suburban Moss is unintentionally funny, while Sutherland, outfitted with a cheesy "aristocratic" accent, seems to be doing Boris Karloff in his more subdued moments. Only Harris, an indefatigably and aptly serviceable character man, looks and sounds really at home, enmeshed in all those togas and columns.

The set and costume designs are impressive and elegant in this $100 million production, but Glen MacPherson's cinematography looks dankly under-lit throughout—apart from that camera-hogging crater, of course.